By Leah Koenig
Anyone who has ever spent time label gazing while at the supermarket has surely noticed the alphabet city of hekhshers – OU, OK, Kof-K, Star-K, KSA, cRc – staring back from a jar of gefilte fish, bagged lettuce or a box of Oreo cookies. This ubiquity of certification is rather startling, especially considering that up until about 90 years ago, the ancient Jewish dietary laws had existed entirely without them. Today, however, the industry represented by those tiny seals of approval is worth $200 billion annually (up from $32 billion a mere two decades ago), and kosher-certified products can be found in virtually every grocery store aisle, from Brooklyn to Boise, Idaho.
Getty ImagesBoiled to Perfection: Pots are made kosher for Pesach.How did kosher certification grow so popular so fast? With Jews making up less than 2% of the country’s population, it seems certain that the answer is rooted in something other than increased religious observance. In her new book, “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority,” author Sue Fishkoff explores this gastro-religious phenomenon and its implications for the way we eat.
The first hekhsher, Fishkoff writes, was pioneered in 1923, when a then-fledgling organization called the Orthodox Union convinced the H.J. Heinz Company to carry certification on its vegetarian beans. Half a century later, the industry had made modest gains but was still largely confined to the Jewish market. Then, in 1972, Fishkoff writes, “Hebrew National launched a television ad campaign (for their hot dogs) that forever changed the way Americans look at kosher food.”
The ad, which introduced the notion that kosher food “answers to a higher authority,” resonated with American consumers living in the anti-authority swirl of the 1970s and looking for reassurance that their food was clean and safe. “The government may not protect you (from unsavory artificial ingredients and additives), the ad suggests, but Jewish law will,” Fishkoff writes.
Consumers took note, ushering in an age of unparalleled growth for kosher food. In the four decades following Hebrew National’s initial marketing triumph, the American food system has grown increasingly less personal and more industrialized – bringing with it high-profile food scares, from salmonella outbreaks to E. coli recalls. And over that time, the hekhsher has come to symbolize an extra set of discerning eyes watching over food production. It is no surprise, then, that the majority of today’s kosher consumers – “86 percent of the nation’s 11.2 million,” Fishkoff reports – shop with health and food safety rather than Halacha, Jewish law, in mind.
The underlying question that drives “Kosher Nation” – namely, “How and why is kosher food so popular?” – is compelling, but it is hardly the book’s only focus. As a veteran journalist of the Jewish press and author of “The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch” (Schocken Books, 2003), Fishkoff has made a career out of asking questions that delve into the heart of contemporary Jewish life. To that end, she spends the majority of “Kosher Nation” exploring how the rapidly expanding kosher marketplace affects the 14% of consumers for whom kashrut is, indeed, a rule of life.
The resulting chapters offer a broad snapshot of kashrut in America today, covering the globalization of kosher food production, the laws behind kosher meat, the increasing availability of “good” kosher wine and the surprising resurgence of kosher interest within the Reform movement. Fishkoff devotes a chapter to the busy life of a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, another to the dwindling Jewish deli and still another to the rise of nontraditional foods, like sushi, in such traditional settings as the Jewish wedding.
Some readers might balk at this breadth-over-depth approach, but Fishkoff sees “Kosher Nation” as an introduction to, not a definitive chronicle of, its vast and constantly evolving subject. “I look at this book as a conversation starter,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Forward: Think American Kashrut 101. To that end, “Kosher Nation” will likely find a home in college classrooms, book groups, and any place where discussing and exploring the subject at greater length is encouraged.
Read more at The Forward.